We live in dramatically changing times. On the one hand, the scourge of godlessness grows ever stronger. On the other hand, we see forces of Godliness strengthening as well. The undecided, the ambivalent, and the “fence-sitters” are vanishing. Boundary lines are being drawn. Unlike in the past, however, they run not between nations but even within families. Everyone today is summoned to choose: Are you standing with God or without Him? Everything is becoming refreshingly and terrifyingly clear.
I refrained from invoking Israel’s cause here. One cannot overstate Israel’s importance to committed Jews — and Gentiles. Yet, this conflict is about not Israel but God. Israel is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” a sensitive gauge of ambient toxicity. The toxic fumes, manifest in anti-Israel and anti- Semitic agitation, are of godlessness. We discern the same fumes in a host of social and ethical issues as well. They are bankrupting the sanctity of life, sapping the spirit, and voiding the soul of humanity.
The world awaits a different message. We palpably sense the hunger and thirst expressed by Amos: “Behold, days are coming, says God the Lord, when I shall send a famine in the earth, not a famine for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of God” (Amos 8:11). In the end, we know this hunger and thirst will be satisfied only when “the earth will be full of knowledge of God, as the waters cover the seabed” (Isaiah 11:9). Tragically, though, nowadays, mostly godless forces are what seem ascendant.
Our concern is not due to mere numbers. When we stand with God, even standing alone, “more numerous are those who are with us than those who are with them” (Kings II 6:16). Still, asking which side seems more unified and better organized elicits an ominous answer. Those allied with God throw up ramparts among themselves, erecting ever-higher walls dividing their ranks. Fixating upon significant domains separating us, we minimize or ignore everything that should conjoin us in serving God.
Our premier weapon against godlessness is education. No better means to educate exist than setting examples. When God operates through Jews and Christians heeding His charge in concert, the potential global impact is staggering. Such cooperation is no attempt to trivialize weighty divergences between our religions. It is, however, predicated upon mutually respecting our differences while affirming that more unites us, through devotion to the God of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and dedication to His word.
This is neither repackaged humanism nor declamation of some amorphous, insipid “Judeo-Christian ethic.” Moreover, whereas political advocacy may be inescapable to thwart immediate, existential threats, this initiative is apolitical. Driven by shared devotion to God, it most implacably opposes dogmatic secularism in all its guises. We stand together, because we believe God revealed His will through His word in the Tanakh. Most concretely, we both revere His word as what guides our lives and defines our missions.
A crucial additional plane demands acknowledgment. In our times, many mainstream Christian denominations formally repudiated replacement theology. This has created a new opportunity for recasting Christian-Jewish relations. Growing numbers of Christians feel drawn to reconnect with Jewish Biblical teachings, which they value as essential wellsprings of Christianity, upon which its founders based themselves. By such bonding, they strive to deepen their relationships, as Christians, with God.
We Jews admire our Christian brethren who courageously renounced a historically virulent, ingrained doctrine. Simultaneously, we see in this extraordinary transformation God’s providence. He is pouring upon us His spirit in a way previous generations scarcely imagined. This unprecedented turning point is miraculous: It is God’s will manifestly revealed, and it is incomprehensible by appealing to natural causes alone to explain it. Furthermore, like any God-given opportunity, it imposes upon us responsibility.
Shall we reckon this simply “business as usual”? Alternatively, shall we recognize that, like any miracle, this is a discontinuity — potentially, a new, historic beginning? Perhaps it heralds the initial fulfillment of Zephaniah’s words: “Then I shall change to a clear language for peoples, for all of them to call in God’s name, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder” (Zephaniah 3:9). When we come together on God’s behalf, humbly heeding His summons, as instruments in His hand, He may work wonders through us.
The centrality of the Tanakh’s words is decisive to this dynamism. Sincere Christian Bible believers who reject classic replacement theology do so because, in the light of serious Biblical study, they judge it untenable, as an affront to not Israel but God: It perverts His word revealed in the Tanakh, by implying that He reneged upon what He explicitly swore repeatedly through the prophets. We Jews, respecting such dedication to God’s word, should share our Biblical teachings and traditions with all who seek them. More generally, this climate stirs ever more Christians to explore their faith’s authentic origins in Israel’s ancient Biblical patrimony. Their quest must rouse us Jews, possessing this scholarly heritage spanning over three millennia, with the challenge of disseminating it to widening circles of Bible believers. Possibly more than any earlier era, ours enjoins us to expound this legacy in the global marketplace of ideas, to growing throngs hungering and thirsting for the Tanakh’s guidance, for all humanity’s benefit.
Such teachings most fundamentally presuppose that, as in Amos’s prophecy, hearing “the words of God” is the key. Solely by answering the question “What is God’s word saying?” can we approach the question “What is God’s word saying to us?” The Tanakh can truly inspire us once we, opening our heads and hearts to its text, first allow it to inform us. Only by listening attentively to its words can we glean their salient messages and abiding, universal impact. This is the root nurturing our joint endeavors.
I thank God for the blessing of personally sharing our Biblical traditions with Christian audiences on this basis. My objective is not changing anyone’s religious orientation (more on that below). It is, instead, helping Bible believers of all persuasions strengthen their bond with God by intensively studying His revealed words. Jews and Christians may integrate those words in distinct and even divergent ways. Re- gardless, we can all learn much when, delving into His words on their own terms, we let them lead us.
Most critically, the foundation of our common efforts is respecting our Father for lovingly bidding His children follow diverse paths, every one filling a unique role in His service. Accepting that God as- signs to each faith’s adherents their route to Him, we forgo attempting to proselytize one another. Thus, standing humbly before God, we bind ourselves mutually through not just love but also respect. We defer to Him, Who employs both Judaism and Christianity, advancing the world toward the goals He ordained.
This last observation warrants additional elaboration. Historically, instances abound of individual Jews and Christians collaborating, in devotion to God and dedication to His word. People of dissimilar backgrounds have always sought, as comrades in arms in their lives’ missions, kindred souls, despite disparities of their affiliations and identities. In even the darkest periods of Jewish-Christian relations, some on each side esteemed among their closest confidantes members of the opposing camp.
Such relationships were intermittent flashes of light in a bleak landscape. They enabled individual Jews to laud their Christian allies and vice versa. Yet, with few exceptions, both would stop short of positively rating their partners’ religious affiliations per se. The past two millennia offer few respites from an almost relentless record of reciprocal institutional derogation. Casting blame today for this tragic legacy of recrimination accomplishes nothing. What is vital is that we, finally, jointly resolve to end it.
On the way to actualizing fully the foregoing vision, this is, arguably, the last and greatest chal- lenge to overcome. One can hardly overstate either the importance or the complexity of doing so. This demands historic paradigm shifts on both sides, involving a thorough reappraisal of each faith’s attitude toward the other. This, in turn, requires, in each camp, delicately balancing uncompromising fidelity to core theological verities with a sensitive evaluation of the changing circumstances to which they apply.
I must interject a contentious caveat. The discussions intimated here are perforce internal, within each religion. I conscientiously oppose “interfaith dialogue.” At worst, such dialogue provided the medieval Church with a pretext for coercing Jews to surrender their ancestral convictions. Even at best, it presumes the faiths that are its subjects profit by their interacting. Implicitly, it posits that such interactions enhance a religion’s distinctive characteristics or our understanding of them, in a culturally relativistic spirit.
I consider this premise condescending to each faith’s ontological uniqueness, which such dialogue inevitably diminishes or obscures. Reducing theology to ethnology or socio-cultural anthropology, it tacitly disrespects sincere reverence of God. It is anathema to anyone taking religious beliefs seriously, much less as God-given. In our case, such dialogue insults both Jewish and Christian believers. Although we stand united, we each need to formulate our responses to the aforementioned challenge independently.
That stated, I tender this provisional proposal. Israel’s role as “a light of the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), God’s means to illuminate humanity, permeates the Tanakh. The radiance, however, is not just for Israel: “I shall give you for a light of the nations, that My salvation may be until the end of the earth…. And nations will go by your light, and kings by the gleam of your shining” (ibid. 49:6 and 60:3). We Jews must admit that Christianity can play a necessary function, annunciating this luminosity in the Gentile world.
Amplifying this view, I affirm unhesitatingly: From a religious Jewish perspective, I see my Gentile friends — who, as Bible-believing Christians, observe the Noahide laws — keeping God’s covenant with Noah and all his posterity. Thus, I believe they attain personal salvation, have a share in everlasting life, and contribute to the world’s ultimate redemption. I have no intention whatsoever to dissuade them from their faith, since through it I believe they fulfill God’s expectations of them and their part in His plan.
We Jews still await reciprocal, equally unequivocal declarations to us by many of our Christian brethren. Genuine love may nowadays be what motivates Christians who bid us adopt their beliefs. Yet, it is love without respect. It treats Jews like godless pagans needing an introduction to God. (We deem this attitude unsustainable once one opens the Tanakh — and realizes God sent Israel to introduce Him to all peoples.) Rhetoric about Jews being “the elder brother” is of little avail if this issue remains unaddressed.
This, too, demands inclusion in the realignment processes presented above. Jews and Christians must learn that neither has sole rights to claim devotion to God or His word. Likewise, both need to appreciate that each is “messianic” — albeit, with highly divergent definitions. (In death marches and gas chambers, Jews sang of their perfect trust in the Messiah’s coming. Considering this, distinguishing as “messianic” small, marginal groups of Jews professing Christian beliefs is profoundly hurtful and offensive to us.)
All the foregoing merely exemplifies the difficulties before us. Part of mutually respecting differences is agreeing to disagree agreeably. In that vein, I submit we leave disparities pertaining to the Messianic era where they belong: in God’s hands. I believe He vouchsafes good reward for everyone who, by deeds and dedication, brings that blessed day closer. And that returns us to the beginning: God’s summons to unite on His behalf — achievable, exclusively when we strive to do so through both love and respect.
The task of reconciliation remains fraught. Altogether, anticipating quick resolutions after two dysfunctional millennia betrays abysmal obtuseness. These are grist for sober deliberations of theologians, scholars, and clerics, in each religion. The ensuing evolutions of thought will take long reaching con- clusions and longer still gaining acceptance. Nevertheless, we dare not allow impatience or incredulity to dispirit us. Most urgently, neither justifies inaction in the interim: God has given us a job to do now.
Thus, we face new challenges, equipped with new opportunities, on a new page of world history. This is the context and purpose of my mission to build bridges by tearing down walls. Age-old prejudices fade as we bond together, doing God’s holy work as He charges us, out of devotion to Him. We must pave the way for all people of faith to stand “shoulder to shoulder,” in joint efforts, readying the earth for God’s “great and awesome day” (Joel 3:4 and Malachi 3:23). May it come speedily, in our days.
Chaim Eisen is the founder and dean of Zion Bible Studies (http://ZionBibleStudies.org), a Web-based educational venture to engage users worldwide — both Jewish and Gentile seekers of God and His word — in a deepening understanding of the Hebrew Bible and other religious classics. It does so through live, interactive programs in Jerusalem and live and recorded video sessions probing directly the meaning of the original texts, geared for anyone striving to connect on a deeper plane to God’s first and foremost revelations to humanity. He is also a senior rabbinical lecturer in adult education at the Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center, where he has taught for 36 years. An acclaimed speaker, he has been stimulating audiences throughout Israel, North Amer- ica, and Europe with talks on the Bible and Biblical commentaries, Jewish thought and philosophy, and education, for three and a half decades. Over the past years, he has become increasingly involved in “building bridges” with Christian believers, through lectures and informal meetings in Israel, North America, and Europe, and via the Internet. © R. Chaim Eisen. All rights reserved.